Monday, February 7, 2011

Childhood Memories and Influence on Writing

What do you remember about your childhood?

I only ask the question because I am currently reading A Fistful of Fig Newtons by Jean Shepherd. An author that wrote about childhood like it was something worth being sentimental about and worthy of our time. His style is clever, while being humorous. If only we all could mind our past like he did, and write some beautiful prose.

The book isn't what I thought it was going to be, or what I hoped it would be, because A Christmas Story raised my expectations to the point that every printed word would be magic and every description would leave me wanting to copy his style, just as A Christmas Story drove me to read his stories.

Don't get me wrong, the book is worth reading, if you like laughing.

But, what does that book have to do with writing?

As a writer, one of the cliches that is repeated in books written about technique is to write about something you know. Yet, how many of us as writers truly explore our childhood for material? I know that I don't. I tend to explore the present or not so distant past, because I can understand my motivations and yearnings in a way that wasn't present to me as a child.

I understand the ability to look back at a childhood and skew the memory to fit the current acceptable psychology of the moment, but my childhood wasn't that clear, because the truth is that fear and acceptance is what motivated my childhood.

I had the misfortune and fortune of attending a parochial school. Eight years of my life spent in a small red and brown brick building. It was so small that it only had four classrooms, and of those four classrooms, I spent six in the same classroom. I never experienced the whole school like my sisters did, or the freedom of a different learning environment.

The reason I spent six years in the same classroom was that three of my teachers ended up getting the rooms due to the class size.

What can a parochial school teach you about writing?

It can teach you about real fears. I had two teachers that didn't mind yelling and using tactics that might make a nun blush. Did I mention this was a Lutheran school? 

It wasn't all gloomy, because the classroom I spent six years in had the best view. Two of the other classrooms overlooked the swamp behind the school. Did I mention this school was in the country? The third classroom overlooked a pig farm. It was a good thing that I wasn't in that classroom, because the farm offered too much stimuli for this daydreamer.

My classroom of six years did offer me a view of a field, and sometimes a cow or two would wonder into my view. Nothing too distracting, so I will always remember it for the great view that didn't get me into trouble.

The point I am making is that in just a short time I described one building and the strongest memories I left me. Those memories offer me a starting point to a story full of fears. The swamp is a nice place for fear, considering the swamp had old headstones in it, because the founders of the church moved the location of the current cemetery closer to the church.